The song means a lot of different things to a lot of people.
Some view it as a kind of anthem for the South. Others think of it with disdain, and think of it as a Redneck anthem for the South.
It’s a song with an auspicious history – clocking in at just over nine minutes as the final song on the debut album of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Free Bird” was launched as a single later, after the next album came out, which produced their first hit – the top ten smash “Sweet Home Alabama”.
That single version was really only half the song, edited down to a little over four minutes. Some in the radio biz thought that was still too long, and an even short version was produced, coming in at about three and a half minutes long!
In October of 1977, everything changed for Lynyrd Skynyrd when Ronnie Van Zandt and Steve Gaines were killed in a plane crash. Most of the other members of the band were injured in the crash, to varying degrees, and for all practical purposes, Lynyrd Skynyrd was no more.
The surviving band members did reunited about ten years later, as a form of tribute, and they played this song as an instrumental at shows, inviting the audience to sing, instead. Shortly after, the reunited version of the band recorded new material, and have been producing music and touring ever since.
A few years ago, I posted this song on my Facebook page, and got a wide variety of responses. Some from friends who loved the song and hadn’t heard it in a while. Some who hated it, and referred to it as the most bloated and over-rated song ever to see the light of day.
It’s a pretty simple song, lyrics-wise. At its heart, it’s about deciding to fly high and that no one, or no thing, can tie you down and keep you from doing what you want to do.
No one can keep you from doing what’s in your heart. And you should never give anyone that kind of power. There’s a world of difference between deciding you’re going to do something, and having someone else make that decision for you.
I know someone who wanted to be a writer, and was given an ultimatum by his partner – you have one year to make it as a writer, and after that, if you haven’t made it, you let it go and never bring it up again.
Compare that to the tale of another writer, who was given a year, and when it didn’t happen for them in that timeframe, together the two of them figured out how to try and make it work, and found a way that he could keep working at it, around other things if need be, to make it work.
That second guy’s name is Dean Koontz, by the way. Hopefully, one day, I can tell you who the name of the first guy, and you’ll recognize that, too!
Of course, it’s always easy to blame that kind of thing on someone or something else, isn’t it? The reason I’m not a rock star, bestselling author, Oscar-winning actor, stock market billionaire, etc. is because of you, or my job, of my parents. I have to work at that soul-stealing job. I have to pick up the kids from school, and then take them to soccer practice or ballet lessons. I have to go to Wal-mart, Target and the grocery store.
Most of the time, the truth is we’re our own worst enemy. The only thing that keeps us from reaching our goals, from achieving our dreams, from flying high, is our fears, our worries, ourselves.
Too often, we aren’t a bird that can’t be changed. We’re a bird that is afraid to fly.
Personally, I have two memories I associate with the song, and neither had anything to do with the words.
I remember when I was in high school, and several of my friends and I got caught rolling someone’s house. That is, we had purchased a large quantity of very cheap toilet paper, and decorated the outside of their premises with it – in many cases launching the rolls high up into the trees, where gravity would bring the roll back down, leaving a long trail back up to the highest branches.
It was truly a beauty to behold. Plus, I was only sixteen.
On this particular occasion, local law enforcement had been roaming the neighborhood, looking for actual ne’er-do-wells. They caught us, instead.
But we knew the people whose home we had decorated, and they thought it was funny. Plus, their son, who went to school with us, was out on a date, and they wanted to leave it up so he could see our handiwork.
So they let us go.
The story got out, and some at school laughing referred to us as “jailbirds”. I protested, pointing out that we didn’t go to jail, or even get arrested. We were freed. So, if anything, we were freebirds.
The song became our theme song, as the next weekend, we returned to our lives of ne’er-do-well-ness.
Some friends and I were kind of in a band. I say “kind of” because we rarely rehearsed, and played as many as one gig each semester. And that gig consisted of one song, played at a get-together for a music organization on campus. I believe our illustrious career lasted as long as three semesters.
We were nicknamed “Two Stripes and a Solid” because of the clothes we happened to be wearing at that first performance. And the song we had learned was “Free Bird”.
I’d heard the song before either of those events, of course. And I’ve heard it several times since. But mostly, when I hear it, it takes me back to those two periods of my life, when I was hanging out with and having a lot of fun with my friends.
And that’s mostly what it means to me.
Sometimes, it really is that simple.
We want things to be tricky and complicated. We want to think too much. And we figure if we’re given a sign in a song, it must have to be have kind of cryptic meaning that will lead us to a better understanding of the universe.
But life really isn’t an Indiana Jones or “National Treasure” movie. And sometimes you have to remember not to take it so seriously.
So what does it mean for you?
Does “Free Bird” take you on a nostalgic trip to someone you used to be? Or does it mean more, that you need to let something go, or let go of something, so you can be what you’re meant to be?
It’s a long song, so it could very well mean something else entirely to you.
Here’s a version from a tour in 1976, very similar to the version that wound up on their live release. Do yourself a favor, when you have the time, and give it a listen. See where it takes you, and if it helps you find that inspiration to fly as high as you can, or at least, as high as you want!